If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably already aware that Up Front has decided to pull the plug on Kobushi Factory. Their final single, “Seishun no Hana / Start Line,” will be released on March 4th, with their farewell performance set for March 30th. And as one would expect of KF, the announcement was released amid a fog of rumored scandal.
This year’s girl was Ayano Hamaura, and the “scandal” involved an Instagram photo of a girl taken from behind, purportedly posted by her boyfriend in celebration of their one-year anniversary. 2-chan sleuths deduced that the girl in the photo was Hama-chan based on known attributes, such as a mole and clothing. Nothing was ever completely proven, although the argument was somewhat convincing. One day later, UF announced they were dissolving the group.
The official explanation is that Ayaka Hirose had been talking about graduating since the beginning of 2019, and the rest of the group was united in the idea that should one leave, the rest would follow. This scenario is every bit as plausible as the “scandal” scenario, so who really knows. And honestly, who really cares? Then end result is the end of Kobushi Factory.
As out-of-the-blue as the announcement was, it wasn’t a complete shock. Kobushi Factory was the only Hello! Project group not to see significant sales increases over the past two years, having settled into the 25K-30K range starting with the “Kore Kara da!” single, their first release as a 5-nin outfit following the actually scandal-tainted losses of Rio Fuji, Rena Ogawa and Natsumi Taguchi in 2017. The group was never able to reclaim the mojo and electricity of their first 16 months, and this would eventually doom KF to be H!P’s red-headed step children for the rest of their existence.
Looking back on Kobushi Factory’s career, their waning mojo actually predates their first scandal. KF charged out of the gate with three strong singles which sold between 41K-48K, putting them squarely in line with Angerme and Juice=Juice. They were the hot new H!P group, and even if their 3rd single “Samba! Kobushi Janeiro/Bacchikoi Seishun!/Ora wa Ninkimono” was a bit disappointing beyond the lead track, it sold better than its predecessor, and did enough to sustain a bit of buzz going into the late November 2016 release of their debut album, Kobushi Sono Ichi.
When Kobushi Sono Ichi sold poorly it was kind of a gut-punch for me, because it’s an absolute classic that ranks with the very best albums ever produced by the Hello! Project. It’s not perfect — “Samba” and “Ora wa Ninkimono” both feel out of place, and at 17 tracks, sacrificing one or both would have made the album tighter and more focused, and increased the ratio of album-to-single tracks, all while keeping it an acceptable length for a long-player — but it’s a road-grader of an album that rarely let’s up, and when it does, it comes back swinging hard. Hoshibe Sho gets his first shot at really spreading his wings as a H!P songwriter here, checking in with four great songs, including the album’s astonishing closer, “Kobushi no Hana.” Somehow this extraordinary album only sold 13K, which would prove to be an ominous sign heading into 2017.
That year started off quietly for Kobushi Factory: they spent two weeks over February and March performing the musical “JK Ninja Girls”. On May 12, Rio Fuji announced she would graduate following the end of the Hello! Project 2017 Summer tour on September 2nd. KF would not see a new release until the June 14th drop of their 4th single, “Shalala! Yareru Hazu sa/Ee ja nai ka Ninja nai ka”. This single was a major disappointment, both in terms of the music and sales. At it’s best, it was ordinary (“Shalala!”) and at it’s worst, downright irritating (“Ninja”). Including a song from a months-old musical also seemed lazy, and fans apparently decided that if Up Front didn’t care about KF, neither did they. At 23.6K, it sold more than 20K fewer than “Samba,” and paired with the disappointing sales of Kobushi Sono Ichi it solidified their trend of declining sales. Three weeks after the single’s release, Rio Fuji was fired.
The Fuji firing set off a chain-reaction of departures under less-than-normal circumstances that, by the end of 2017, would also claim Rena Ogawa and Natsumi Taguchi. The remaining five members were allowed to continue, but even if they had the support of their company, they had lost a great deal of support from their fans. All of the buzz surrounding Kobushi Factory had been replaced with some combination of unease and apathy. The bloom was off the Magnolia, having moved on to the Camellia, as their sister group Tsubaki Factory had since made their own stunning debut, and were now the new hotness of the Hello! Project. After TF’s 3rd single sold over 71K, it was clear that old-and-busted KF had been surpassed by their little sisters for the long haul.
Kobushi Factory made their come-back as a 5-nin unit on March 28th, 2018 with their 5th single “Kore Kara da! / Ashita Tenki ni Naare.” It was a good-but-not-great re-introduction of the pared-down group, featuring two fairly conventional idol-rock tracks, of which “Ashita Tenki ni Naare” seemed to fit the smaller lineup better. At 32.6K sold, it was a marked improvement over “Shalala,” and earned the group renewed interest with some fans who had written them off. The follow-up single, “Kitto Watashi wa/Naseba Naru,” however, was a disaster. Musically, it was fine, except that neither song felt like it belonged on a single. The lead track is a light, catchy idol-pop tune that would be great as a transitional song on a long-player, and the gorgeous Hoshibe Sho penned “Naseba Naru” is an emotional album closer in search of an album to close. Unsurprisingly, the single tanked, slipping KF back into the mid-20K depths of “Shalala”.
The girls — and Up Front — soldiered on into 2019, and in April Kobushi Factory’s 6th single dropped. “Oh No Ounou/Haru Urara” was promoted more vigorously than any KF release to date, including a smart campaign on UF’s Omake Channel on YouTube. Each member filmed a short comedy skit placing them in an embarrassing situation (Oh No!), but the execution rarely rose to the level of the concept. Only Nomura’s clip really hit the mark, while those of the others mostly served to expose a major lingering problem with KF: while the three former members were the weakest singers, they were arguably the most engaging personalities. Taguchi, in particular, stood out in the crowd almost entirely on her personality, despite being a back-bench vocalist. The remaining five were all likable, but the whimsical charm of Kobushi Factory was lost forever by the time the calendar flipped to 2018.
Musically, “Oh No” was an awkward stew of pop, funk and rock that featured a bizarrely arranged and mixed intro/pre-verse. The chorus was tight and catchy, but overall, the song was kind of messy, which is sad, because “Haru Urara” is one of Kobushi Factory’s best recordings. This mature, conventional pop song appeared to be a perfect path forward for the seemingly lost-in-the-woods idol group, offering the now young women an opportunity to showcase their vocal chops in a style that allowed for harmonies and required control and emotion. It was a path that would also allow for a somewhat more serious public persona — think C-ute in their final years — that I think would have suited them more naturally. KF has never sounded better than on this recording, and sales did creep back above 30K, but just barely.
October 2019 saw the release of their 2nd album, which was a bit of a relief to me. I figured that Up Front committing the time and resources to a full length album was a sign that both the company and the girls were committed to Kobushi Factory for the foreseeable future. Kobushi Dai Ni Maku was a very good album that suffered from a jarring track order, songs that seemed better suited to other H!P groups (prime example: Tracks 5 and 6 would have made a fine single for Juice=Juice), and a collection of rock songs that felt mailed-in. Even the guitar solos sound like first-take jams that don’t go anywhere. These are niggling annoyances of a very good album, though, and while not quite the death of a thousand cuts, certainly the stitch-scars of a dozen.
The Limited B version of the album included a 6-track a cappella EP featuring five of their early songs and Morning Musume’s signature hit “Love Machine.” This was an extension of Kobushi Factory’s a cappella performances on the Omake Channel, and although they are performed well, they are also over-produced and under arranged. In particular, Nomura’s bass lines and Inoue’s beat-boxing are over used to the point of gimmickry, and limit the arrangements to mostly 3-part harmonies. The bass-and-beat-box parts were fun on the Omake Channel videos of “Nen ni wa Nen” and “GO TO THE TOP,” even reclaiming a bit of their old 8-nin whimsy and charm, but the moment you realize they will be employed on all of their a cappellas, the charm gives way to frustration at another great concept muffed by middling execution.
Kobushi Dai Ni Maku‘s sales of 15.5K were not mind-blowing, but they were respectable by H!P standards of the day, and right in line with the most recent albums from Angerme and Juice=Juice (it actually outsold Angerme), so in spite of disappointing singles sales, Kobushi Factory closed out 2019 on an upward trajectory for the first time since 2016. The growing sense of stability surrounding KF made the January 8th announcement of their dissolution curious, and coming just one day after the Twitter rumors about Hamaura, more than a little suspicious. If it was just a coincidence, it was one hell of a coincidence.
We’ll never know for sure if the girl in the photo was Hamaura or not, or if it played any part in the decision to disband Kobushi Factory, because the only proof that would confirm it would be Hamaura or Up Front admitting that it was, and that it did. This might strike some as unfair, but I don’t see anyone involved admitting that the rumor was true even if it was, and a negative is impossible to prove. This chain of events will be debated by Hello! Project fans on both sides of the issue for as long as H!P exists. What can not be denied is that scandals did permanently alter KF’s future and sapped an exciting idol group of its momentum and much of its character. I don’t think they ever reached their true potential, although part of that was management’s fault for saddling them with spotty and disjointed releases dating back to even before their first scandal. For those first 16 months, though, Kobushi Factory was an untouchable supernova of an idol group. Even if they never did reach their ceiling, they came damned close with Kobushi Sono Ichi and “Haru Urara,” and along with the rest of their songs, those are things Ayaka, Minami, Ayano, Sakurako, Rei and all of their fans will always have.